Parmesan cheese is an iconic hard cheese originally from Italy that is widely used and produced all over the world. Within Europe, it is a protected cheese, meaning that only those made in a certain way in a certain area of Italy can be labeled as Parmesan. Outside of Europe, many generic cheeses use the name. The distinctively salty, slightly granular cheese has many uses in Italian cuisine, such as a topping for pastas and pizzas and as a crucial ingredient in some sauces.
In most of Europe, Parmesan cheese is referred to by its Italian name: Parmigiano-Reggiano, a reference to the regions in which the cheese is produced. To bear the Parmigiano label, the cheese must be made from cow's milk between May and November in Modena, Parma, Reggio Emilia, or parts of Bologna and Mantova. The cheese is traditionally made by mixing whole morning milk with skimmed milk from the previous evening. The milk is heated and mixed with rennet to form curds, which are pressed in a cheese mold. True Parmesan is molded with a stencil, indicating where and when it was made. The cheese is soaked in a brine bath and then aged for a minimum of two years before being graded for sale.
Another well known export of the region is Parma ham. The pigs are often fed the discarded whey from the cheese manufacturing process, and this is said to create a distinct flavor in the meat. The curing process for true Parma ham is also protected, along with many other regional Italian foods. Some import stores specialize in importing protected Italian foods for consumers outside of Europe who would like to be assured the genuine article.
True Parmesan cheese is a hard yellowish cheese that breaks in a sliver-like pattern. The dense cheese has large grains in it that can easily be seen with the naked eye. When examining a wedge of cheese, the marks from the Parmigiano-Reggiano stencil will also be able to be seen, and cooks should be able to see which dairy made the cheese and when. A reputable importer will cut a sliver for consumers to taste before packaging the cheese for sale, and may offer tastes of several wheels so that the best flavor can be identified.
Grocery stores all over the world also carry cheese made in the Parmesan style outside of Italy. Some of these cheeses rival true Parmigiano-Reggiano for flavor and texture, while others are of a somewhat lesser quality. If possible, cooks should buy this cheese in a whole wedge, rather than pre-grated, as the wedge will hold flavor and texture better, and the cheese will not be as dry when it is used.